By Cam Huffman
As you’ve probably heard by now, the West Virginia University baseball team is tied for first-place in the Big 12 standings. After taking two out of three games against No. 10 Oklahoma over the weekend in Charleston and flirting with a sweep — the only loss came in 10 innings on Friday after WVU let a late lead slip away — WVU, picked by every coach in the league to finish last, is 11-7 in conference play and 29-20 overall.
With two weekends of conference play remaining, winning the title is now a realistic goal instead of a fantasy that even Disney could not have imagined.
If you’re a Mountaineer fan, you’re probably giving that news a thumbs up. But if you haven’t followed WVU baseball over the years — and few have — you may not understand the significance of what this team has accomplished.
First, remember that last year’s WVU squad finished 23-32 overall and 9-18 in conference play, competing in the Big East — a mediocre baseball league that has seen just two teams, Louisville and Notre Dame, reach the College World Series in its history, which began in 1985.
Also remember that this year’s team — made up largely of the same players who lost two-thirds of their league games a year ago — is now playing in a conference, the Big 12, that has produced two national champions — Texas in 2002 and 2005 — and 12 College World Series participants since it began in 1997.
To put it in terms of more commonly-followed sports, the Mountaineers’ jump from the Big East to the Big 12 in baseball is similar to a jump from Conference USA to the Big Ten in football or the Horizon League to the SEC in basketball.
And WVU’s baseball team in the Big East was more the Youngstown State than the Valparaiso of the Horizon League, more Memphis than UCF in Conference USA.
Before the season began, seeing WVU finish at the top of its new league appeared about as likely as finding Rutgers leading the pack in the Big Ten football race next season.
Oh, and don’t forget that the Mountaineers were also faced with the task of playing every league game — home and away — at least 100 miles away from the Morgantown campus. They rarely sleep in their own beds, and two-hour bus trips are the norm.
Somehow, though, first-year head coach Randy Mazey — who should be the national coach of the year, forget about the Big 12 — has found a way to help his team clear all of those hurdles and rise to the top. WVU has used strong pitching, timely hitting, sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs, baserunning aggressiveness and plenty of heart and confidence to beat some of the league’s best teams and put themselves in a spot — with series in Charleston against TCU (8-10) and on the road at Oklahoma State (9-8) left on the schedule — where it could win the Big 12 in its first year of competition, becoming only the second team outside of the state of Texas to ever win the regular season crown.
If this were football or basketball, WVU would be on SportsCenter more than Manti Te’o or Tim Tebow.
The other amazing story this spring has been the fans’ response. I’ve long been in favor of a new baseball park in Morgantown, but that’s more because it’s necessary to be competitive — you can’t recruit players to spend four years in a Motel 6 when the other schools in your conference are offering them The Greenbrier — than any belief that the fans would actually fill the seats on a new home on a regular basis.
I went to baseball games when I was a student at WVU, and I could have easily been in charge of taking attendance. I could count every fan at Hawley Field with the simple point and count method, and I rarely even had to remove my socks after running out of fingers.
Before the 2013 season began, even the most die-hard Mountaineer fan could have probably told you two things about the baseball team: 1) Jedd Gyorko was pretty good and 2) Greg Van Zant likes to bunt. That was about it. There just wasn’t any interest in the program.
But over the last two weeks, beginning with the Mountaineers’ stop at Beckley’s Linda K. Epling Stadium, where they swept Kansas, WVU fans have proven that they’ll come out to the park if there’s a team on the field worth watching.
The crowd of over 2,000 for that first game against Kansas was the largest to ever watch a WVU baseball game in West Virginia. That crowd, though, was blown away by the more than 3,000 fans who showed up to watch WVU and Pitt in Morgantown on Tuesday, and then the three-game set this weekend against the Sooners in Charleston drew 7,372 fans. WVU, which drew all of 8,475 fans in 23 home games last season, is averaging 2,186 fans over its last six games.
I’m now a believer. The WVU faithful have proven to me that they’ll support a winner, and Mazey has me convinced that is what the program will be, as long as he’s in the dugout.
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Mountaineer fans in the area will have a few more chances to catch the WVU baseball team in action. This weekend’s three-game series against TCU, where Mazey served as an assistant before coming to Morgantown, will include games Friday at 6:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m at Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park. WVU will then make one final stop in Beckley next Tuesday for the rubber game of a three-game set with in-state rival Marshall. That game is scheduled for a 7:05 p.m. first pitch.
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With six conference games remaining, WVU is tied with Oklahoma and Kansas State at the top of the league standings. As mentioned, the Mountaineers have TCU and Oklahoma State remaining. Oklahoma will host Oklahoma State this weekend and end the season at Kansas State. Aside from the Sooners, Kansas State has a series left with Kansas.
It should be an exciting finish.